Light My Fire

After struggling to give up smoking, I have come to a compromise: Never smoke more than one cigarette—at a time.

A while back I was temporarily side-lined by a benign brain tumor about the size of a small Frisbee. I handled it with my usual panache: “Piece o’ cake,” were the first words I slurred when I came out of the anesthesia.

The downside of the surgery was a strict order from the neurosurgeon not to drink, smoke, or get in bar fights where I might be hit in the head with a bottle. No problem. My last decent fight occurred in the fourth grade, and as for not drinking, I found the experience of waking up without a hangover almost intoxicating. I even thought my strength of character, though never before tested, would get me through cigarette withdrawal. Hell, I might even start exercising. Born again I would be. A veritable clean liver. I fancied entering the smoke-free world, where I could scowl at tobacco-heads and use little coughs to signal my disapproval and moral superiority. I could go on tour, an angel of abstinence, lecturing my friends about their rowdy and self-destructive ways. I would straighten the fools out.

Everything went well except for the part about cigarettes. Two weeks and 14,000 shirt-pocket slaps out of the hospital, I began to learn what the word “addiction” meant. In fact, addiction hardly describes the ordeal that awaits a smoker who is both habitually and hormonally (I’ve done a little homework) hooked on nicotine, tobacco, smoke, lighting up, putting out, inhaling, exhaling—in short, hooked in all ways and on every aspect of the killer weed. Sure, you can quit smoking if you really want to. But that’s the catch. I don’t really want to. The closest I’ve ever come to wanting to is wishing that I wanted to. If the price of cigarettes ever goes to $100 a pack, I’ll just steal televisions and hold up liquor stores.

So anyhow, I managed to go without a single cigarette for two months, which should have been plenty of time for my system to purge itself of nicotine, my hormones to readjust, and my habits associated with smoking to at least weaken. But no. If anything, I felt worse and worse, with nearly every waking minute interrupted by the urge to smoke a cigarette. It was like not having enough air to breathe or as if ordinary air was just too thin. It was like having an internal itch I couldn’t scratch. My writing days were over, I could tell. After all these weeks I still craved a cigarette the way a prisoner craves a woman (or so I’ve heard), the difference being that you can live without a woman. Kipling said it: “A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke.” Or, in my case, a good cigarette.

On my next follow-up visit I told the doctor I had been scrupulously following his

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